Hospitable Burma 

Needless to say, we have had to rely on the kindness of strangers a fair amount on our trip and the generosity and willingness we have experienced has been pretty humbling in all four countries we have visited so far.

We have been pursued a kilometre down the road in Thailand just so our chaser could present a gift of fresh fruit; another guy in Vietnam took 30 minutes out of his working day to lead us back to the correct road after we got lost and whenever we have needed assistance with the bike swarms of people have always been eager to help us get back on the road.

Nowhere is quite like Myanmar for this giving spirit. The past three days have involved us hitching 150km via 3 pickup trucks, taking refuge in a local monastery and being offered hospitality by a wonderful family in a remote village. 

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After leaving mum and dad in Bagan before they headed back to Yangon for their flight home we ended up hitching the majority of the way to Mandalay just 30km outside of Bagan. We started to hear a crunching and thought it sounded like the bearings in the bottom bracket so decided it was safer to get to a bike shop ASAP. 

Our first ride was a covered truck which already had around 12 teenage boys in it but somehow we managed to fit Paddy and the bike (still loaded) in there too. I got front seat. 🙂
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The second ride was with two guys in a pickup truck who drove 15km out of their way to drop us off. 
We then cycled out of town before hailing down our third lift, another pickup truck which was carrying a family. There turned out to be a slight communication breakdown on this last lift… 

It turned out that this truck made quite a spectacular detour south to pick up a large collection of sugar cane from a village which wasn’t even on our map. By the time the truck had been loaded and we had worked out that they were planning to tie the tandem and us (along with the family!) to the top it was 6pm. 
  
We managed to communicate that perhaps it was easier for everyone if we stayed the night in the village and set off early by bike the next morning. A young 25 year old called Ye Naing, who is studying at a local university, arrived and took Paddy to meet the village head and we were given permission to stay with the monks in the local monastery. 

Everyone was so friendly; we were taken to the river so we could swim and wash, fed a huge meal and then treated to an excursion in the head Monk’s car to visit the Werawsana temple which is the first pagoda made entirely from jade. It’s a popular temple to visit at night, spectacularly lit up with peaceful gardens encircling the base.

  
Here we are with Ye Naing, his uncle and some boys who came with us from the monastery. 

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We slept well and after breakfast Ye Naing arrives and tells us he has arranged a lift for us to U Bein Bridge, the famous teak bridge in Amarapura, just outside Mandalay. He says we should visit the bridge as it is a good thing to see and then we can perhaps cycle the 10km into the centre to find the bike shop. We can’t argue with this plan but can’t help feeling that they are all going to so much trouble for us. Ye Naing simply tells us they are very happy to help us.

  
U Bein is pretty cool, and a great place for us to sit, enjoy the peaceful views and morning sunshine while thinking about the generosity we have just experienced.

 

Young female nuns with a herd of cattle swimming across below
 
We take the bike to a workshop who give the bike a good service. Turns out the bearings are fine and the crunching was the back chain which just needed a thorough clean…! Onto Pyin Oo Lwin!

  

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Bagan and Mandalay with the Sheens

Like all the literature says, Mandalay is rather a disappointment. We had one day to explore some of what the city had to offer before taking the river boat downstream to Bagan. After our 4 day cycle to reach here we were very happy to take a backseat in terms of the ‘itinerary planning’ and so mum and dad hired us a day taxi (there are no tuk tuks in Mandalay!) and we spent the day exploring some of the main temples and monasteries.

We also indulged in our first proper western meal which was, to tell you the truth, very very enjoyable!
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Occasionally you need that taste of home, even if what your eating is a poor imitation of home comfort food.

  

We also enjoyed a great sunset over the river and polished off the evening with a traditional puppet show which was very interesting despite some of the puppets lacking a little ‘finesse’. The erratic half flying horse sequence was probably the best… 🙂

The next day we spent the whole day on the boat down to Bagan. Expensive at $40 a ticket (they charged $5 extra for the bike). Mind the baggage handlers at the dock area who will insist on carrying your bags down the steps. At first they perceive to be part of the boat team but it soon becomes clear that they are a very well organised scam, placing official looking tags on your bags which don’t really mean anything and then demanding 1000k from each person.

The trip was a very pleasant way to travel though and we all enjoyed relaxing on the boat and taking in the scenery. We teach mum and dad Yahtzee and have a good few games along with partner whist. Mum manages to beat everyone in both games despite having to double check the rules at every go!

We arrive at the north port in Bagan at 6ish. All the major roads into Bagan town have checkpoint stations where tourists are required to pay a $22 admission fee for the site. Normally we wouldn’t mind paying this fee but currently in Burma most of this money goes straight to the government with very little of it actually going to the upkeep of the actual archaeological site. We would prefer to donate to each temple as we visit, and hand out cash individuals rather than propping up the corrupt system (plus we’re trying to save some pennies!).

If you are arriving by taxi, bus or other kind of transfer it’s difficult to avoid paying the fee. Being on the bike, we were able to cycle the back way through the shanty towns on the edge of the city but if you were wiling to carry your bags you could also walk it. It was hard going on the bike sometimes but very doable and there’s a good article on the wiki travel web page on how to skirt round the various ticket booths depending on which direction you are arriving from. You only really get asked for your tickets at the temples you can climb (8 in total).

The next 3 days were spent exploring the 4000 (there used to be twice that before the 1975 earthquake!) temple sites which litter the flat planes of Bagan. We enjoyed tailing mum and dad on our tandem as they trotted around on their horse (called War Horse) and cart. 

War Horse taking mum and dad round

If you cycle, take care on the very sandy roads!

Some pictures to end…

 

Paddy and mum discussing the 11th Century carvings

   

Exploring inside

 

Sunset view
 
 

  

   

3 Day Ride: Pindaya – Mandalay (via Ywengan and the ‘back way’ from Kyaukse) / 224km

Day 1: Pindaya – Ywengan

Distance: 80km (19th March 2016)

Road: up and down all day, paved but bumpy road; had to go 20km south from Pindaya first before you head northwest to Ywengan.

There is a steady climb out of Pindaya and then you get to enjoy some lovely rolling countryside. 8km in, our chain gets really jammed and we have to take an hour to tease it out from inbetween the derailer and kick stand… The cycle otherwise was pretty uneventful although there was a fair amount of climbing involved.

Ywengan is a small town (make your way to the centre) but there is one simple guesthouse (Khansan Guesthouse) for USD 10 – this is pricey for the room you get with a cold water bath and toilet outside although we did re-fill all our water bottles for free from his water dispenser. There are a couple of OK restaurants and a decent cafe half way up the hill – great for breakfast.

Day 2: Ywengan – wild camping 10km NW from Kyaukse (20th March 2016)

Distance: 90k by mostly downhill

Road: Paved – pretty darn good for Myanmar, especially considering how quiet and unused the road is – great ride down with spectacular views!

Mostly Up with a bit of down for the first 10k. You pass some sleepy villages where we stopped for a coffee and cake break and the scenery is great.

We pass a cool temple complex complete with four huge Buddha statues looking out across the valley.

  
The road is lined with white cherry blossom, dusted pink in the centre of each flower.

  Here I am just after we started the long decent! 

The road is narrow but in good nick with very little traffic. It zig-zags down in front of you like a great black snake. The views are AMAZING! This is the best ride we have had so far.

   
For a lot of the time it is completely silent except for the crickets and birds. Giant butterflies flutter past and gold and red dragon flies keep pace with us as we enjoy the downhill.

Every so often we stop to give the breaks a chance to cool off and enjoy the breathtaking views and the big drops into the valley. The landscape is dry but still very beautiful – again, clear signs of mass deforestation.

There is currently 1km of road works near the bottom where the road pretty much disappears, replaced by sand and rocks. It’s amazing how much hotter it’s got as we’ve climbed down. Bye bye cool weather…

We stop at a large restaurant a few km after the road works. A large river runs through the valley and we follow this for a while still on Rd 411 – a lush, green strip of land clings to its banks.

A few km on we then take a right turn onto the white Rd, crossing the river and then skirting around the mountains north. This connects to another yellow rd further North. You can turn left at the T-junction and head to Kyaukse this way, a much nicer ride which avoids the main AH1/AH2 road to the west. 

We had no plans to go to Kyaukse though as we needed to find a camping spot. We turn right again and head up past the huge Chinese cement factory following the road north. The landscape offers very little cover and despite it being a Sundy the road is still fairly busy. At dusk we agree we need to just get off the road as quickly as possible. A few people would likely see us but hopefull they wouldn’t take too much notice. 

We spot what looks like an empty bamboo shelter at the side of a field about 250m from the road. We make a dash for it and it ends up being the perfect hideaway for us. We wait for a while to see if anyone comes but by 7.30 we think it’s safe to pitch the tent. 

We watch a documentary about the English folk revival and then fall fast asleep. 

Day 3: Kyaukse to Mandalay – the scenic, not on the map, back way! (21st March 2016)

Distance: 54

Road: mostly unpaved, sandy and very tricky in places

So as to avoid the main rd into Madalay we cut a new route ourselves through the countryside north east of Kyaukse on our final day of this stretch from Inle.

We followed the road north towards the river, cutting through a valley and skirting the mountains on our right. The road is unpaved, sandy and pot holed but very wide. We need to cross the river to continue on but there is no bridge or official ferry crossing on the map. 

Assuming there will be someone with a boat willing to take us across when we get there we turn off to the left and follow the canal network towards one o the riverside villages (this is not marked on the map). The mountains offer an impressive backdrop as we cycle on this dirt track, banana plantations lining our way on both sides. 

  
It is bumpy and slow – definitely not for those cyclists who like to stick to paved roads but perfect for tourers who like to get away from the beaten track and don’t mind a bit of adventure, we cycled through some really lovely villages, glimpsing the daily lives of those Burmese who live off the land and who have very little.

We reach the village by the river an instantly spot a boat going back and forwards. It is absolutely stunning here and we both look forward to getting across so we can jump in the water for a pre-lunch swim. 

 The boat owner and his mate help us load the bike into the tiny boat and with very little fuss we’re over safely. 

  Only 25k to our Hotel in Mandalay!
After being on a very bumpy track for another 8km we turn onto the canal again and follow it right into centre of Mandalay, avoiding all the busy roads.

The city’s roads are terrible but we find our hotel and get ready to go off to meet mum and dad!

Rooftop cocktails overlooking sunset on the Ayeyarwady river